The Renaissance of the Artisan Class

Clyde Jenkins, maker of white oak baskets

Clyde Jenkins, maker of white oak baskets

by James A. Bacon

I’ve been giving some thought to why I’m so fascinated with the maker movement, and I think I’ve finally found the answer. As a self-employed writer I identify with other artisans and craftsmen who make a living through their creativity and hard work. Marx and Lenin might refer to people like us as the “petite bourgeoisie” — a class distinct from the propertiless proletariat, the landed gentry and the wealthy capitalists. We value grit, hard work, self-sufficiency and independence. We don’t ask much from government; we just want to be left alone. We worry about the corrupting influence of the welfare state on the work ethic of the underclass, we resent how the rich use the power of government to augment their wealth, and we are suspicious of do-gooder crusaders who use government to coerce us to conform to their latest enthusiasms.

Yesterday my family and I visited the Spring Jubilee in Goochland County, west of Richmond, set in the beautiful Rassawek Vineyard. There were wine tastings, musicians, hay rides, boat rides, painters and artisan exhibits. I found myself drawn to the artisans — not just to see their work, which was uniformly interesting, but to hear their stories. Most exhibitors have reached a point in their lives where they can make a living following their passion. A few work regular jobs and pursue their crafts as a serious hobby or in the hope of transitioning to a self-supporting endeavor.

The post-World War II age of mass automation was cruel to the petite bourgeoisie in America. Giant companies with national brands backed by massive advertising campaigns obliterated the small craftsman. But tastes have changed. The 21st century is experiencing a “maker” renaissance. People are rebelling against the national brands. They don’t want the same thing everyone else has. They want unique possessions that no one else has; they want to know the story behind the chair they’re sitting on or the wine glass they’re sipping from; and they want a personal relationship with the craftsman — whether he or she is brewing beer or converting junkyard metal into art.

Pundits on the left and right fret about the “decline of the middle class” as robots and artificial intelligence puts millions of Americans out of work. Searching for a livelihood and meaningful existence in a robot/AI-dominated world, millions will turn to the maker movement, giving rise to a modern American analogue to Merry Olde England’s independent artisans and yeoman farmers. None of these people are celebrated by the chi chi fashion centers of New York and Hollywood. If anything, their tastes and creations are likely to be derided as plebian and unsophisticated. But the makers could very well grow into a social movement that will transform the nature of the economy and, if they ever develop an awareness of their common values and interests, the political arena.

The bearded fellow atop this post is Clyde Jenkins. He was born and raised in Page County, in the northern Shenandoah Valley, where he picked up the old-time craft of basket weaving. He makes the baskets from white oak, from which he makes the “splits” that he weaves into baskets, as seen in the photo. Jenkins has split so much wood for so many baskets over the years that the knife has created a permanent dent in his thumb. He also does stone masonry and claims he has a ten-year backlog of projects, which suggests a significant pent-up demand for his skill. If I had a ten-year backlog of writing work, I said, I’d double my rates and settle for a one- or two-year backlog. Why doesn’t he raise his rates? He couldn’t really explain why he didn’t. It just didn’t seem to be right, he said.

Hiroshi Awano

Hiroshi Awano

Hiroshi Awano was born and raised in Japan, where he learned the craft of traditional Japanese woodworking. He married an American gal and settled in Fluvanna County, where he works in wood, creating everything from intricate  panels like the once seen at left to entire Japanese-style gazebos. Even his tools are works of art. Instead of marking lines by snapping a string laden with chalk, as many American craftsmen do, he draws the string through elaborately carved pots of ink made by previous masters of wood working.

Chelsea Pearman, of Goochland County, learned taxidermy from her father-in-law. Here she’s seen with one of her works, a beaver gnawing on a tree. When asked if she minds carving up dead animals, she smiles and says, no, she’s been a hunter all her life.

Jim Bordwine hails from Saltville in Smyth County. He supplements his retirement income by hand making salt the old-fashioned way. It's much purer than the table salt sold in grocery stores and has a different taste. In a world in which consumers can purchase gourmet sea salts from around the world on the Web, Bordwine offers a specialty product "salted" with a narrative about how early frontiersmen used the mineral to preserve their food.

Jim Bordwine hails from Saltville in Smyth County. He supplements his retirement income by hand making salt the old-fashioned way. It’s much purer than the table salt sold in grocery stores and has a different taste. In a world in which consumers can purchase gourmet sea salts from around the world on the Web, Bordwine offers a specialty product “salted” with a narrative about how Virginia frontiersmen used the mineral to preserve their food.

debra_obier Debra O’Bier practices the craft of needle felting with a specialty in creating animals. Her creations are cute but, unlike the collectible Beanie Babies of yore, they’re one of a kind. To add authenticity, she sometimes buys hair fibers from the same kind of animal she’s re-creating. She says she can purchase almost any kind of fiber imaginable at the annual Wool and Fiber Festival in Maryland.

 

 

reindeer3Among her many creations: the reindeer at right.

 

 

 

 

Breck Steele lives in a cabin in the woods that he built himself, and he traps animals for a living. Here he displays the pelt of a beaver he trapped in Goochland County set in a frame of willow wood. He wears a necklace made of deer antler horn.

Breck Steele lives in a Goochland County cabin in the woods that he built himself, and he traps animals for a living. Here he displays the pelt of a beaver he trapped set in a frame of willow wood. He wears a necklace made of deer antler horn. One species or another is legal to trap in Virginia around the year, which keeps him busy all the time.

David Bonhoff designs and hand-makes his own furniture. Here he is working on a side table made by bending strips of wood around wooden molds. I took a breather by sitting in a deck chair of his own creation. He commands a handsome but not outrageous retail price for his creations, certainly enough, I would think, to support a comfortable living.

David Bonhoff designs and hand-makes his own furniture. Here he is working on a side table made from bowed strips of wood. I took a breather by sitting in a deck chair of his  creation. He commands a handsome but not outrageous retail price for his work, certainly enough, I would think, to support a comfortable living.

Roger Smith has an appropriate last name for a man who works with hand-forged wrought iron. Unlike the village smithy, he doesn't use bellows and rely on hand-held hammers. His machine technology is more circa 1890, such as this machine hammer he uses to shape a piece of iron.

Roger Smith has an appropriate last name for a man who works with hand-forged wrought iron. Unlike the village smithy, he doesn’t use bellows or rely on hand-held hammers. His  technology is more circa 1890, such as this machine hammer he uses to shape a piece of iron.

With a full-time job, Clark Brimmet dallies in a range of crafts in his spare time. Among his creations are these pens with customized bodies. I bought one. Hey, at $20 it has a lot more personality than anything I could purchase at Office Max. With a full-time job, Clark Brimmet dallies in a range of crafts in his spare time. Among his creations are these pens with customized bodies. I bought one. Hey, at $20 it has loads more personality than anything I could purchase at Office Max.

 

 

 

 

John Richter, retired from the military, lives in Chesapeake. His specialty is hand-made knives. Most of his creations seem made for use in the kitchen around the house -- no Navy Seal combat knives here!

John Richter, retired from the military, lives in Chesapeake. He makes hand-made knives and other metal objects. Most of his knives seem made for use in the kitchen around the house — no killer Navy Seal combat blades here!

Kevin Baker's passion is re-creating ancient artifacts like the stone axe he's holding here. Working in his spare time, he also makes stone knives, custom bows & arrows, and turkey calls -- when he's not building tree houses or doing historic renovations.

Kevin Baker’s passion is re-creating ancient artifacts like the stone axe he’s holding here. Pursing crafts in his spare time, the Richmonder also makes stone knives, custom bows & arrows, and turkey calls — when he’s not building tree houses or doing historic renovations.

There are currently no comments highlighted.

5 responses to “The Renaissance of the Artisan Class

  1. Well – once again – I feel compelled to compliment you! Excellent article and I love the vignettes and accompanying photos!

    I’d only tweak you a bit to remind you that most of these folks have public educations – depend on public roads to get to the event – and most of them need health care – the older ones through Medicare – but the others – may not have it – in no small part because Virginia has denied it to them.

    but credit given where credit due – an excellent article that you did spend time and effort crafting and it shows.

    thanks.

  2. Keep an eye on The Devil’s Backbone Brewing Company for an example of Virginia-based craftsmanship. They opened in 2008 using a name famous in Virginia history. Operating with a test brewery in Roseland (Nelson County) they have the bigger operation in Lexington. If my carousing throughout Virginia is any indicator – these guys are on a roll! According to their web site I can buy their product at over 340 locations within 10 miles of my home. As part of my service to this blog I have sampled many of DB’s products – many on multiple occasions in order to achieve statistical significance. What they produce is uniformly excellent.

    http://dbbrewingcompany.com/?age-verified=b164d1270b

    I don’t know how many micro-brews exist between Fredricksburg and the Maryland / West Virginia borders but I’ve counted 30, including excellent products from Old Bust Head (Warrenton) and Port City (Alexandria).

    I think Jim Bacon is onto something with the “craft revolution”. Some of these craftspeople end up with significant operations – Duck Dynasty, Siracha Sauce, Devil’s Backbone (just wait and see) and 5 Guys come to mind.

  3. Nice photo gallery, BUT…
    “As a self-employed writer I identify with other artisans and craftsmen who make a living through their creativity and hard work. Marx and Lenin might refer to people like us as the “petite bourgeoisie” — a class distinct from the propertiless proletariat, the landed gentry and the wealthy capitalists. We value grit, hard work, self-sufficiency and independence. We don’t ask much from government; we just want to be left alone. We worry about the corrupting influence of the welfare state on the work ethic of the underclass, we resent how the rich use the power of government to augment their wealth, and we are suspicious of do-gooder crusaders who use government to coerce us to conform to their latest enthusiasms.”

    My daughter, a recent college grad, is very much a participant in the crafts movement. But I really don’t know where you get off speaking for her and others like her. You lead a comfortable life with not too many worries. She has to struggle selling at weekend crafts fairs. Nor does she get a “sponsorship” from Dominion.

    Plus, at least in Richmond, the movement has been going on for years. It is not a “Bacon” discovery.

  4. You don’t get it., You have a fine bit of reporting and impressive photos but then you go ruin it by trying to put your voice over everything.

Leave a Reply